Former City Council member Chris Coleman, also a Democrat, routed Kelly 70 percent to 30 percent in unofficial returns with all but a few precincts reporting. Ahead of the election, independent polls showed voters were primed to fire Kelly, and most cited his 2004 endorsement of the Republican president as the reason.
No sitting St. Paul mayor had lost a campaign since 1974. Kelly had a personal election streak that spanned just as long, covering his quarter-century in the Legislature and first term as mayor.
"It may sound silly, but Kelly was for Bush and I'm not," said retiree Audrey Guith after casting her vote for Coleman.
Kelly found it impossible to change the topic in the campaign's final weeks. He tried to tout his record of adding affordable housing while keeping property taxes steady, and the mayor sought to paint Coleman as a tax-raiser beholden to public employee unions.
"The people have spoken," Kelly said in a concession speech at his campaign headquarters. "I say amen, and so be it."
Though Coleman had seized on the endorsement in his campaign, he downplayed its role in the victory. "This race has never been about George Bush," he told cheering supporters.
He was just as jubilant.
"I just can't even tell you how good winning feels," he said. "We Democrats forget that every once in a while."
Minneapolis also chose a mayor, with incumbent R.T. Rybak cruising to a second term over Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a fellow Democrat.
Like Minneapolis, St. Paul's bigger and better-known neighbor, Democrats largely outnumber Republicans and control all aspects of city government even though the offices are technically nonpartisan.
Political experts were astounded by how prominently the 2004 election figured into this fall's race. Most other issues took a backseat; a Star Tribune of Minneapolis poll released Sunday showed that nearly two-thirds of voters considered the endorsement important in their decision.
It drove plumber Daniel Doyle to pick Coleman over Kelly, whom he supported in 2001. Doyle said he was happy with the direction of the city, but not the mayor.
"That weighed me down when he was backing the president. He lost my vote," Doyle said. "I don't know whether he is going to sway to the Republican side.
McRae Anderson, a city resident for 36 years, stuck with Kelly. He said the Bush endorsement didn't bother him because he voted for Bush himself. Anderson said he was disappointed that so many other people were influenced by that one event.
"He's done a good job. They ought to see what he's done for the city," he said.
Kay Wolsborn, a political science professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University, said it's too soon to say if the St. Paul race suggests broader trouble for Republicans as Minnesota moves into an election year with the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat on the line.
"There's going to be some very interesting analysis behind closed doors," she said. "How wise is it to bring in the big Republican names in support of our statewide candidates?"